Missouri baseball focuses on mental game as team wins second straight series

Sunday, March 20, 2011 | 6:42 p.m. CDT
Missouri's Ryan Ampleman bats during Friday's baseball game against Central Michigan University at Taylor Stadium. Ampleman was the team's leadoff hitter for the series, and he finished the series with six hits and five runs scored.

COLUMBIA — The piece of paper is taped to a TV in the Missouri baseball locker room. Ten numbered lines are on the paper, and numbers 1-9 are intentionally followed by a blank space.

Missouri's name follows in the space next to No. 10. It's the place a preseason poll predicted the Tigers would finish in the Big 12 Conference this season.

Last place.

A month into the season, and less than a week away from the start of conference play, that sign serves as a daily reminder to the Tigers. They saw it when they started the season 3-7, they saw it when they won their first series last weekend and they saw it again on Sunday before they finished a series against Central Michigan.

Missouri lost the second half of a doubleheader 8-1 on Sunday afternoon at Taylor Stadium, snapping a six-game winning streak, but an 8-6 win earlier in the day was enough to win another series.

The Tigers (10-10) will use that piece of paper and whatever other motivational tricks they have to try and keep their confidence high when Oklahoma, ranked No. 3 in the country, comes to Columbia on Friday.

"Every day I walk in there and get pissed off because it's there," senior Ryan Ampleman said. "Every single day. All these people who supposedly know everything about baseball, and you're picked last. 'You're not going to be good, and you can't do anything about it.' And (posting) that is what you can do."

Ampleman's individual season has mirrored Missouri's. When the Tigers returned home, he was batting less than .200 and had lost the starting catcher position. Against Central Michigan this weekend, Ampleman, who is seeing more time as the designated hitter, had at least one hit from the lead-off position in all four games and had three RBIs in the win Sunday morning.

The return of Ampleman's confidence is something coach Tim Jamieson said he and the team will need against the Sooners next weekend.

"It makes a big difference," he said. "If Oklahoma's playing well, we're going to have to be playing well. If we're not playing well, Oklahoma doesn't have to play particularly well to beat us."

Jamieson said the team doesn't talk about its preseason ranking anymore, but he has purposely left the sign hanging.

"One of the greatest motivators is people telling you what you can't do," he said. "If you believe that, then they're right. If you respond in a competitive way, you prove them wrong."

The Tigers are responding to more than their ranking. As of Jan. 1, the NCAA adjusted aluminum bats to decrease power, and it has led to more low-scoring, close games. This change impacted how Missouri's batters prepared in the preseason.

Jamieson emphasized a more mental approach. The team focused on tactics such as bunting and base-running, but it also talked about not getting discouraged when fly balls fell on the wrong side of the fence.

"You're used to using a certain type of bat ever since you were little, one with the same kind of pop," Ampleman said. "Balls that were going out last year aren't going out. They're not even close. To be mentally strong and figure out what you need to do to get on base... that's been huge for us."

In the four-game series against Central Michigan, Missouri didn't hit a home run, but it averaged more than seven runs a game. Ampleman was key to this output. His batting average had risen to .333 entering the last game of the series.

Perseverance has been important for Ampleman. When things weren't going well, he looked up at the sign, walked out of the locker room and tried to find something that would reassure him that things would turnaround.

"It's important to come out to the ballpark every day and do something that makes you happy," Ampleman said. "Something as little as playing catch with your best friend on the team or hitting off a tee for ten minutes before practice. Something that no matter what else is going on behind you, it makes you proud."

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TR Robertson March 20, 2011 | 9:43 p.m.

Good story, Andrew. I like the way you've been showing us the things going on behind the scenes of a difficult season.

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